Narrative Resistance and Lyric Personae in School, Pluck, and The Vestiges

Reviewed by Natalie Thompson

Upon first perusal Laisha Rosnau’s Pluck, Jen Currin’s School, and Jeff Derksen’s The Vestiges have one over-arching, grand thing in common: very short titles. They are disparate in subjects, themes, line breaks, stanzaic patterns, narrative employment, et al. Pluck has a traditional lyric “I” while School has remnants of a central persona woven throughout, though Currin always undercuts its authority. The Vestiges title poem has a central collector of fragments, and in a later poem Derksen shows Karl Marx in new, personable light. Though these books are incredibly different, the reader can locate a central mood of uncertainty as the tremulous world scene offers little comfort and opaque hope.

In Pluck Rosnau questions the social prescriptions put upon women. The title poem has a numbered, episodic structure, and each section profiles a woman’s choice in contrast to and harmony with the conventional wisdom of various eras. For example, in section one, the subject “Get[s] married at seventeen” and “take[s] to the field—there’s land to clear,” and in section two the subject waits until an “unfashionable” age to get married, and so on. Arguably, the women in this piece grapple with the opposite of being plucked—being planted in restrictive social norms.

It must also be noted that the construction of Rosnau’s poems is very clever. “Shame, Revisited” laces the line “Other people do it better, I’m sure,” throughout its pantoum-like framework, the incantatory phrases all “balanced just so.” And this rhythm mimics the face of shame—a little devil one can never quite shake. “Decadent Nut Orchard” has a revolutionary, scaffolding as every second line ends with the word “open.” Certainly, Rosnau’s traditional lyric “I” is the “mother” of great invention.

Speaking of invention, Currin is a virtual Penelope weaving a conversational tone throughout School, but just when it feels a story is coming on, narrative is unwoven. In “Fragmented Lesson Plan” the poem begins, “Yes, we took walks. / & we were just getting to know each other sexually.” So the reader thinks, “what is the couple’s ’lesson’?” And then lines like, “Soy milk separates from coffee” have the reader wondering what the through-line is. Seemingly, she has lifted lines from various sources and knit them into a pastiche.

But what does this personable, fragmentary style signify? In the poem “Half Life” the antepenultimate stanza gives a clue: “Accused of being optimists / we did a lot of thinking and hesitating.” There is an optimistic yearning to trust that things—relationships, gender biases, politics, economic instability—will get better, and yet a hesitation to fully believe so. In “My Prison Studies” three lines express the angst best: “We finally wanted it all to make some sort of deep sense. / we want to live that way now / & we knew there was not one trapped person who would disagree with us.” Unsurprisingly, School has angst.

The Vestiges is a masterful collection of long research poems, two of which have wildly incongruent commitments to having a knowable speaker. In the title poem, there is a cold, accusing eye observing the world scene and concluding: “that’s legislation over flesh.” We see the sickening irony of song lyrics embedded throughout: “What we need / right now is / fresh availability / of cheap labour / and land / “and love sweet love.”” But there is a call to arms in lines like, “’barbarism unifies nature’ / that’s an irony / to work against together.” In the end, Derksen puts the reader in the vestiges of hope.

Derksen’s brilliant research poem “I WELCOME EVERY OPINION BASED ON SCIENTIFIC CRITICISM” gives a curious sideways glance at Karl Marx. The poem is an amalgam of every personal “I” statement from Capital, volume I. Lines like, “I shall come back to the agricultural labourers later on” and “I shall merely glance at their housing conditions” show a man deeply concerned with solving the problems of his world. And so too, this book, urges readers to stay bunkered in the remnants of opaque optimism—but with their dukes up.

In essence, each poet does precisely what a poet should: observing the world, reflecting upon inner worlds, and distilling the two into poetry. That each one challenges the traditional lyric speaker is expected. The brain wants narrative, wants to “make sense” of women’s changing roles, the spirit in times of loss, and reason when greed takes over. All three are commanding, questioning artworks asking us to do what humans should—to strive, to seek, to find answers.

This review “Narrative Resistance and Lyric Personae in School, Pluck, and The Vestiges” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 137-38.

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